As you’ve probably read in my previous articles, I’m a proponent of our beloved Chicago Blackhawks shuffling the deck when it comes to their depth chart. Even though the Hawks are for the most part getting the job done, most Hawks fans would agree they’ve played below their capabilities one too many games this season.
As I’ve also mentioned earlier, it can be a difficult task effectively placing the Blackhawks’ many, many talented players on a line where they can play to their full potential. It’s a great problem to have, but it is a problem, and the chaotic state of the Hawks’ second and third lines are indicative of as much. I won’t get into the fine details, but suffice it to say when each game you’re rotating between a forward who just a signed multi-year, multimillion dollar contract (Bryan Bickell) and a slow, veteran forward pushing 40 (Michal Handzus), something is very much amiss.
And while the Hawks’ first line is a terrific triumvirate with the numbers to prove it, it’s not without its own set of flaws. Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Sharp all being such beautifully balanced playmakers has caused them to get in each other’s way on more than one occasion. Either via Sharp and Hoss getting their sticks crossed on the crease or the hair-wrenching “one-too-many-pass” as they try to make a goal look too pretty.
I’ve already more than given my two cents on how the first three lines of the Blackhawks should be arranged, but I’ve not yet addressed the one line on the Hawks that is really humming and moreover getting the job done and then some: the fourth line of Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger, and Ben Smith.
By definition, a fourth line in hockey is there pretty much to eat up ice time while the starters are getting a breather. However, as I’m sure you more hockey savvy readers know, when a fourth line does more than simply preserve the status quo of the game, you’ve got something great. When a fourth line can either shut down and irritate the opposing team’s top lines or put pucks in the net, or better yet do both, you’ve indirectly created a force for opponents to reckon with, leaving your top lines more free reign to light the lamp as opposing coaches try to rearrange their depth chart and game plan to counter the fourth line threat.
Needless to say, productive fourth lines are hard to play against, and while the superstars often get all the press when it comes to championships, it’s really the fourth line of hockey teams that win Stanley Cups for the aforementioned reasons. The likes of former and current Blackhawks such as Dave Bolland, Adam Burish, Bryan Bickell, Ben Eager, Colin Fraser, and Andrew Shaw all made names for themselves during stints on the Hawks’ fourth line.
Let’s be clear here though, if you’re a hockey player skating on the fourth line of a team, your talent at the moment hasn’t exactly been turning heads. So how do fourth lines become so potent? One word: chemistry. I’ve harped before on the importance of lines having good chemistry in order for a team to be consistently successful, so it’s no coincidence the games where the Blackhawks have experienced the most success as of late have included significant contributions from Bollig, Kruger, and Smith, because their chemistry at the moment is bubbling more than any of the other lines on the depth chart. Here’s why:
With Marcus Kruger you got the mechanics; his sweet stick skills have him currently at seventh in the NHL with a 57.1 faceoff win percentage. With Brandon Bollig, you have the enforcer, and his 6’ 2” 223 lbs. vindictiveness is well documented (124 hits on the season), making any opposing player think twice before taking a run at his line-mates. Finally, with Ben Smith, you have such a determined grittiness that Blackhawks commentator Mike “Doc” Emrick likens the Hawks forward to a bowling ball: relentlessly powering through checks and grinding opposing players down along the boards to come up with the puck and make plays.
Above all else, this line keeps things simple and their “back to basics” game style speaks for itself. Over the course of the Hawks’ past five games, Smith, Bollig and Kruger have combined for a total of three goals and four assists. Certainly atypical fourth string stats…
To sum it up, the Blackhawks need to learn from Bollig, Smith, and Kruger’s example. The Hawks certainly have more than enough talented role players to work with in the upper lines and two weeks off for the Olympics in February for the coaching staff to hunker down and put together some line combos that can develop killer chemistry as we come down the play-off stretch in March. Unfortunately we’ll have to wait and see if any of this comes to fruition, but I’m sure many in the Blackhawks organization are more than aware of the old hockey adage, a line of teammates is always superior to a line of individuals.
FOR THE DAGGER!